WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy may have lasted eight years, but the retiring Holy Father and his reforms have left their mark on the American priesthood and sparked a new uptick in vocations.
Father Michael Roche, 34, remembers when he left his desk at a Pittsburgh accounting firm to watch the news of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election to the papacy in 2005.
"I was just thrilled and filled with tremendous joy," Father Roche recalled. He had walked away from his cubicle at the Grossman, Yanak and Ford building upon hearing the news of "white smoke" to watch the television in the company cafeteria. He was a layman asking questions about his vocation at the time and felt a surge of excitement to learn that Cardinal Ratzinger, whom he viewed as "a figure of strength in the Church," had accepted the call to take the Chair of Peter.
Father Roche recounted the words of Pope Benedict to young people at his inauguration Mass that inspired his priestly vocation: "Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. ... Open wide the doors to Christ — and you will find true life."
"That was pivotal in my life," Father Roche told the Register. "I can’t say I had been afraid of Christ, but I was not convinced that a vocation to the diocesan priesthood could be lived in this day and age."
But Benedict’s words filled the young Catholic with a new confidence to discern his vocation. Less than a year later, he joined the seminary to become a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
As Pope Benedict leaves the papacy to make way for a new successor, U.S. vocations directors say they’ve seen a surge in new applicants to their seminaries in recent years.
Father Carter Griffin, vice rector at Blessed John Paul II Seminary in Washington, said the Archdiocese of Washington’s new seminary opened its doors in 2011 and is already near capacity.
"Benedict was able to open up new vistas to people," Father Griffin said. "For them, to see this man of profound faith, love and hope on the world stage has been an enormous benefit on the world and on vocations."
It’s a scenario that is also playing out at already established seminaries such as Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md.
"We’re experiencing the largest numbers that we have had in years," said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who teaches pre-theology to seminarians at the Mount.
Msgr. Swetland said that most of the men he teaches are between the ages of 21-25 and were teenagers when Blessed John Paul II died.
"They are more affected by Benedict," he said. "I think the young are responding to the fact that he takes them seriously enough to do something beyond themselves."
A Seminarian’s Perspective
Pope Benedict’s challenge to young people to embrace the faith and the New Evangelization captured the imagination of Andrew Buonopane, 24, now a second-year seminarian for the Washington Archdiocese.
"The Year of Faith and the call to the New Evangelization are right up my alley, personally," Buonopane said. "It addresses the concerns of skeptics and non-believers in ways that make sense to them."
Buonopane knows this from personal experience. Encountering the Pope during his historic April 2008 visit to Washington played a key part of Buonopane’s return to the Catholic faith during his college days at George Washington University.
"It’s solely during his papacy that I’ve been conscious of God and my faith life," he said, adding that he continued to deepen his faith by reading the Pope’s works. "As I started to learn more about my faith, Benedict was there for me."
Worldwide, the Catholic Church has seen an increase of more than 6,000 priests during Benedict’s papacy, most of them to the diocesan priesthood, according to data collected by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The number of diocesan priests in the world exceeded 277,000 in 2010, levels higher than those recorded in 1970, the year Paul VI introduced the new form of the Roman liturgy.
Father Sean McKnight, executive director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee of Clergy, Religious and Consecrated Life and Vocations, said that the United States experienced the depths of its decline in the numbers of new priests and seminarians during the 1980s and 1990s.
The U.S. defied a global turnaround in the Church’s vocation decline that occurred under Blessed John Paul II. Worldwide, the annual number of new diocesan priestly ordinations had increased by nearly 2,500 between 1985 and 2005, when 6,614 men were ordained. Graduate-level seminarians increased from more than 43,000 to about 58,500.
Yet, over the same time period in the U.S., the annual number of priestly ordinations had dropped from 533 to 454, and new seminarians had declined from 4,000 to 3,300.
Halting the Decline
Father McKnight said that Blessed John Paul II did much to staunch the hemorrhaging of U.S. vocations, but Benedict was able to take additional action that helped change the priesthood’s image of corruption and embolden "good, healthy candidates to come forward."
"Benedict has helped ensure that Catholics know there is a very good program and norms for the formation of our priests in place at seminaries," Father McKnight said.
Under the authority of Pope Benedict, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education put in place new strict directives for seminaries in 2005, calling for screening requirements that barred candidates with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" or psychological immaturity from entering the priesthood.
The same congregation also launched an apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries, sending teams of three and four to inspect more than 200 U.S. seminaries and formation houses between 2005-2006. The final report recommended that seminary rectors keep "barriers to ordination high," encouraged bimonthly confession for seminarians, advocated a return to traditional acts of piety and a shoring up of seminarians’ intellectual formation and training in moral theology.
Benedict’s encouragement of the U.S. bishops to look for "quality not quantity" in potential new priests also relieved bishops of the pressure to try to remedy the priest shortage by accepting unsuitable candidates, Father McKnight said. And U.S. seminaries greatly benefited from the influx of highly qualified and credentialed formators the bishops commissioned in response to the Vatican’s report, according to Father McKnight.
"The seminary-formation programs require a critical number of priests that are properly credentialed in the various philosophical and theological fields," he said. "In general, the more we improve the quality of formation in our seminaries, the more vocations we retain, and the more ordinations we have."
Father McKnight said his committee has witnessed a steady increase in new ordinations and seminarians since 2006. According to CARA, new U.S. ordinations rose to 480 in 2012, and the number of seminarians had increased to more than 3,700.
Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., said the Church needed to screen out candidates with same-sex attraction, which he said has fueled "a great deal of sexual scandal and misconduct" that has roiled the Church.
"The priesthood is a precious and wonderful gift that God gave to his Church," Bishop Bruskewitz said. "There are certain people who are just not suitable to the priest’s function of standing in the person of Christ."
Bishop Bruskewitz oversaw a surge of vocations in the Diocese of Lincoln under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He said that both Popes were "in sync" with each other and inspired seminarians to adopt the "authentic interpretation" of the Second Vatican Council and its spiritual reforms. But he said Pope Benedict brought to the papacy a much stronger emphasis on liturgical prayer and the learning of Latin.
Bishop Bruskewitz cited the Holy Father’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which authorized wider celebration of the old form of the Roman rite, and said Benedict’s own example in celebrating the liturgy had increased "attention to liturgical tradition [among priests and seminarians] more than in years before."
Lesson of Humility
Benedict XVI’s last act in the papacy has left the priests and seminarians whose vocations he inspired with a profound lesson of humility.
"It’s a reminder that the priestly ministry is never about me," Buonopane remarked. "It’s not based off what a great person I am, my particular gifts, charisma or anything that I might provide for myself. It’s only founded on the instrumentality God entrusts me with."
Buonopane said Benedict’s influence will forever leave its mark on his vocation.
"The Church is certainly worth my life," he said. "Benedict gave me confidence in the Church that I was dedicating myself to."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from
Rochester, New York.